China’s “vaccine diplomacy” has failed to win the strategic trust of Southeast Asian countries

Analysts say that while China is ahead of Europe and the United States in filling the vaccine gap in Southeast Asian countries, such an advantage does not translate into “soft power” for China, and that China’s advantage will soon shrink as the epidemic slows in Europe and the United States and there is more room to support the fight against the epidemic in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Despite questions about vaccine effectiveness, China still wins favor with some countries

The Indonesian Medical Association recently said that at least 10 of the 26 Indonesian doctors who died from the new coronavirus infection in June this year had been vaccinated with the Chinese Kexing new coronavirus vaccine, and that they had received two doses. While epidemiologists say proper investigation of these deaths is needed to determine whether factors such as poor hospital care or chronic underlying illness were the primary cause, concerns about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine have further intensified. Some health experts are already considering whether to add another “booster shot” for frontline health care workers.

Khairulanwar Zaini, a researcher with the Regional Strategy and Politics Program at the Issa Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in an email to the Voice of America that concerns about the safety of the Chinese vaccine persist in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, opposition to the Chinese vaccine is based on religious reasons and even anti-Chinese racism, in addition to concerns about the safety of the vaccine itself.

Even before these recent announcements, there were reports of hesitation in the region about the Chinese vaccine,” he said. Part of the reason was skepticism about the safety of the Chinese vaccine. The lack of data integrity (from vaccine clinical trials) and confusion further fueled the skepticism. There is also anti-Chinese racism in Indonesia. In Vietnam, there are broader geopolitical concerns about reliance on China. There are also obvious religious considerations in Malaysia and Indonesia: some Muslims are concerned about whether the Chinese vaccine is halal, and whether they will still be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage after receiving the vaccine from Kexing or GMP, for example.”

To assuage the public’s concerns, Indonesian President Joko even showed himself being vaccinated with China’s Kexing’s New Crown vaccine on live television in January this year. The number of people receiving the Chinese vaccine only increased after the Indonesian Islamic Union declared that the Chinese Kexing New Crown vaccine met halal standards.

However, Zani believes that concerns about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine will not change the gratitude that some governments in Southeast Asia feel toward China, particularly Indonesia and Cambodia, for whom the Chinese vaccine was the only vaccine available to them earlier.

Because China has been able to consistently provide vaccines, they have been able to launch universal immunization programs,” he said. If the Chinese vaccine eventually proves to be less effective in preventing infection, they will have to change their vaccination schedule (adding booster shots or using other vaccines), but that won’t offset the goodwill that comes from China providing the vaccine, because it’s better to have the vaccination than not.”

A June 28 report in the Nikkei Asian Review quoted an Indonesian health ministry official as saying, “Indonesia depends on vaccines from China …… because only China can meet the amount of vaccines Indonesia needs. There are still very few vaccines coming from sources such as AstraZeneca and the (World Health Organization-led) New Crown Vaccine Assurance Mechanism (COVAX). If Indonesia is waiting for Pfizer and other vaccines, the quantity is not enough to give vaccines to Indonesians.”

Indonesia, with a population of 270 million, once had the highest number of New Crown deaths and infection rates in Southeast Asia. Starting this January, the Indonesian government is committed to a mass vaccination program to obtain universal immunization. Indonesia intends to vaccinate up to 180 million people, or 70 percent of the population, in one year. About 90 percent of the approximately 160,000 Indonesian health care workers have already been vaccinated with the Chinese Koxin vaccine.

Indonesian government officials said in April that the Coxin vaccine has worked very well in reality. 94 percent of health care workers were protected from infection after receiving the Coxin vaccine. However, the outbreak has recently rebounded in Indonesia due to the new crown mutant strain “Delta”. This has led some to believe that the Coxin vaccine may not be as effective against the new mutant strain.

Indonesia is the largest purchaser of Chinese vaccines among Southeast Asian countries. As of today, Indonesia has confirmed an order of 125 million doses of the new crown vaccine from China. In early December last year, Indonesia received 1.2 million doses of Koxin vaccine, and another 1.8 million doses on Dec. 31. After that, Indonesian pharmaceutical companies joined hands with China to co-produce the vaccine.

On June 27, the Indonesian Food and Drug Administration (BPOM) approved the Coxin vaccine for emergency use in the country’s 12- to 17-year-old age group.

Cambodia and Laos are the world’s largest recipients of non-reimbursable vaccine doses from China. Of these, China has donated 2.2 million doses of vaccine to Cambodia and 1.9 million doses to Laos. Both countries also rely heavily on Chinese vaccines to achieve their universal immunization programs.

As of June 25, 3.803 million people across Cambodia have been vaccinated with the new crown vaccine, representing 38.3% of the national target of 10 million vaccinations, of which more than 2.8 million have completed 2 doses. Cambodia’s vaccination rate is ahead of most Association of Southeast Asian Nations members.

China’s generosity has also won praise from Cambodia. “If Cambodia doesn’t rely on China, who else can it rely on?” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the “26th Future of Asia” video international conference in May.

Gregory Poling, director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, believes it is no coincidence that Indonesia and Cambodia are the largest importers and donors of Chinese vaccines.

This is clearly because China is focusing its vaccine diplomacy on where it can benefit most,” he says. Cambodia is a subordinate country to China, and they want to keep it that way. Indonesia is the largest country in the region. China also knows that it will be easier in this country than in the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, or even Malaysia.”

That said, overall, Southeast Asian countries are the main targets of Chinese vaccine diplomacy. China has provided vaccines to Southeast Asian countries primarily through small donations and large-scale contract sales. As of June, Southeast Asian countries had ordered 203 million counts of Chinese vaccines from China, representing roughly 25.6 percent of the vaccines sold in China . In terms of vaccine donations, China has donated 7.3 million doses of vaccines to Southeast Asian countries, accounting for 25 percent of China’s global donations.

Southeast Asian countries strive to diversify vaccine supply away from China

Kaiser Anwar Zani, a researcher with the Regional Strategy and Politics Program at the Youssef Issa Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Zani stressed that while China has won some goodwill among Southeast Asian countries through vaccine diplomacy, it has yet to win their strategic trust. Efforts by Southeast Asian countries (with the sole exception of Cambodia, which is largely dependent on Chinese supplies, and another source, the New Crown Vaccine Guarantee Mechanism) to diversify their vaccine supplies and avoid total dependence on China are good examples.

While Indonesia orders 125 million doses of vaccines from China, this represents only about one-third of all vaccine sources in Indonesia. Indonesia also orders a total of more than 250 million doses from AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Pfizer.

The same is true for the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Brunei. Chinese vaccines are an important source, but not a dominant one. The Philippine government has a contract to supply 25 million doses of vaccine from China’s Kexing Vaccine, second only to Indonesia. However, the Philippines also orders vaccines from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer, Serum Institute of India, and SII-Novavax, as well as Russia’s Sputnik V, for a total of 137 million doses.

A poll conducted earlier this year by the University of the Philippines’ Outbreak Research Team (OCTA research) showed that only 13 percent of respondents said they trusted vaccines from China, while 41 percent preferred vaccines from the United States.

Thailand has ordered 18.6 million doses of the Coxin vaccine and has also received a donation of 1 million doses, but the country does not expect much from the Chinese vaccine. In Thailand, the most desired vaccines by the private sector are the Pfizer and Modena vaccines from the United States. Thai social media sources show that it is popular for celebrities and wealthy people in Thailand to travel overseas to get the Modena and Pfizer vaccines. Thai opposition parties in March criticized the government for ordering Chinese vaccines despite knowing that their effectiveness was questionable.

Separately, Thailand in June reached a technology-sharing agreement with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to produce the New Crown vaccine locally in Thailand, with future plans to provide it to other Southeast Asian countries as well.

Malaysia ordered 15.5 million doses of Chinese vaccine (including Kexing, Sinopharm, and KangXinuo), but the total amount of vaccine ordered from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Satellite V far exceeded the total amount of Chinese vaccine, which totaled 64 million doses.

Brunei ordered 52,000 doses of vaccine from China, but ordered more from Pfizer, Modena, and Novavax.

Myanmar received a 500,000-dose vaccine donation from China in May, although this move was half a beat slower than India’s. India already donated 1.5 million doses of New Crown vaccine to Myanmar in January.

Singapore uses only Pfizer and Modena vaccines in the government’s mainstream vaccination program, although interest in the Chinese Kexing vaccine has now increased. The Singapore government said in early June that it would allow private healthcare providers to introduce the Kexing vaccine through a Special Access Route for those who originally intended to receive the Chinese vaccine.

Among Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam is the most reluctant to opt for the Chinese vaccine. It was not until June 4 that Vietnam approved the new Koxin vaccine produced by China National Pharmaceutical Group for emergency use in Vietnam. In the previous vaccine order, Vietnam singled out the Chinese vaccine.

Vietnam hopes to provide vaccines for universal immunization through the New Crown Vaccine Assurance Mechanism (COVAX), vaccine manufacturers from other countries, and by strengthening domestic development and production technologies. Vietnam currently has a very low vaccination rate of 1%. Vietnam also hopes to have universal access to the U.S. vaccine Novavax in 2022, which is currently in Phase II testing.

On June 20, Vietnam received 500,000 doses of Sinovax’s New Crown vaccine with Chinese aid, however, China requested that these vaccines be given priority to Chinese citizens in Vietnam, Vietnamese citizens with a need to travel to China for work, and people in the border areas of northern Vietnam.

China struggles to gain the trust of Southeast Asian countries

According to Zani of the Youssef Isa Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, the distrust of Southeast Asian countries in China comes mainly from China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over 90 percent of the South China Sea, covering the “exclusive economic zones” claimed by Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In addition, Zani said, China’s narrative approach to vaccine diplomacy and China’s “war wolf diplomacy” has also alerted Southeast Asian countries.

The region does not want to bet everything on Chinese vaccines,” he said. While China has a slight advantage in terms of regular deliveries, vaccine availability is not the only thing these countries have to consider. China’s narrative around vaccine supply and China’s use of soft and hard power also compromises China’s vaccine diplomacy.”

In a February 25 article in the Voice of Timor-Leste, Chinese Ambassador Xiao Jianguo of Timor-Leste accused “some rich and powerful countries of practicing vaccine ‘nationalism’ by ordering and stockpiling vaccines in large quantities, while many developing countries have difficulty obtaining enough vaccines,” while China is China is promoting “equitable distribution” and “leaving no country in need behind and no one waiting for a vaccine to be forgotten.”

After emphasizing that “no country in need should be left behind,” China donated 100,000 doses of Coxin vaccine to Timor-Leste, which has a population of 1.3 million, only on June 5. The final vaccine gap in East Timor will be filled by Australia and through the New Crown Vaccine Guarantee Mechanism.

According to Zani, such polemical language from Chinese officials will only lead to the perception that China is “arrogant and hypocritical,” especially when its vaccine supply falls far short of expectations. The invective against the West also gives the impression that China “cares more about scoring political points and using developing countries as pawns in achieving geopolitical goals.

Another aspect of China’s soft power that has been undermined, Zani said, is its fickleness. He said Southeast Asian countries are not currently appreciating China’s “war-wolf diplomacy,” but they clearly see how Beijing punishes countries that do not align themselves with China. China can provide a vaccine today, and tomorrow it can punish you,” he said.

Because the Australian government has proposed an independent international investigation into the origins of the new coronavirus, China has followed up with trade and economic sanctions against Australia. The leaders of Southeast Asian countries will naturally remember this, Zani said.

Southeast Asian countries have also endured China’s “thunderous wrath,” and in 2016, China did not invite Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Conference in late 2017 because of his stance on the South China Sea arbitration case and his taking the side of the West. That same year, China also had Hong Kong Customs seize nine armored vehicles that Singapore had shipped back from Taiwan, which were not released until two months later.

While it is unclear whether China’s vaccine diplomacy is working in Southeast Asia, one thing is clear: China’s donations of protective clothing, masks and and other medical aid to Southeast Asia last year have not been well received; instead, Southeast Asian countries are generally resentful of China, especially the Philippines, said Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of course, everyone is happy to get free masks, but they don’t forget the other things China has done,” he said. What they see most in the newspapers is the bombardment of Chinese nationalism, the war-wolf diplomacy, and that scares them. It is also related to a perception in Southeast Asian countries that no matter how much they need Chinese aid, it is not unconditional. …… There’s always an unspoken condition there, which might be a demand that you keep quiet on Hong Kong, on Xinjiang, or on the South China Sea.”

He said Chinese donations will always be associated with photos in the media, giving the impression that their donations are purposeful and always tied to deals.

Zani argued that China’s display of hard power in the South China Sea is even more fundamentally hurting China’s soft power. The current attitude of Southeast Asian countries has a lot to do with China’s actions in the South China Sea, he said. Even during the new crown epidemic, China has not weakened its actions in the South China Sea, and has even intensified them. Therefore, it is difficult for China to win the trust of the region based on the vaccine alone.

According to the State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey published by the Yusuf Issa Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, 44 percent of respondents believe that China is the ASEAN dialogue partner that has provided the most help to the region in dealing with the outbreak. However, when asked if ASEAN had to choose one of the two major powers to ally with, 61.5 percent chose the United States.

In addition, 65.9 percent of respondents said that if China wishes to improve relations with the region, it “should resolve all territorial and maritime disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.” 68.9 percent of respondents said China “should respect our sovereignty, not bind our country’s diplomatic choices “

U.S., European and Japanese Vaccine Efforts in Southeast Asia

According to Zani, concerns about Chinese dependence in Southeast Asian countries provide even more space and opportunity for vaccines in Europe and the United States. While China is currently leading in providing vaccines to Southeast Asia, such a lead will erode as Europe and the United States, and also Japan, improve their own outbreaks, he said.

The Japanese government announced on June 29 that it would provide about 1 million doses of the New Crown vaccine to Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia on July 1, and about 1 million doses to the Philippines on July 8 and to Thailand on July 9, respectively, without charge. Together with Taiwan and Vietnam, which have already been shipped, Japan’s vaccine supply reaches a total of six countries and regions.

Analysis suggests that Japan’s move is also in consideration of China’s vaccine diplomacy and its intention to expand the scope of Japan’s support in Asia. It is worth noting that in the future, Japan will also provide vaccines to other Southeast Asian countries, and these vaccines are provided directly to Southeast Asian countries, bypassing the WHO.

In addition to Japan, U.S. President Joe Biden announced on June 3 the first 25 million doses of the New Crown vaccine for global distribution. About 7 million of those doses will be provided to South and Southeast Asia.

On June 11, the Group of Seven nations, meeting in London, also pledged to donate at least 1 billion doses of vaccine to developing countries by the end of next year. Of these, the U.S. pledged to provide 500 million doses and the U.K. pledged 100 million doses.

In March, the Quadripartite talks (Quad) between the leaders of the United States, Australia, India and Japan also agreed to provide 1 billion doses of the new crown vaccine to most of Asia by the end of 2022. However, because of the severity of the epidemic in India, priority was given to supplying the vaccine to India.

Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that helping Southeast Asian countries emerge from the new crown epidemic is critical to the Biden administration. He said, “How can the United States claim to be a global leadership force again if it can’t help in a major crisis that comes along only once in a generation?”